In the very early hours of the morning, in a Harvard robotics laboratory last summer, an insect took flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it leapt a few inches, hovered for a moment on fragile, flapping wings, and then sped along a preset route through the air.
The demonstration of the first controlled flight of an insect-sized robot is the culmination of more than a decade’s work, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.
“This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years,” says Robert J. Wood, Charles River Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Wyss Core Faculty Member, and principal investigator of the National Science Foundation-supported RoboBee project. “It’s really only because of this lab’s recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design that we have even been able to try this. And it just worked, spectacularly well.”
Inspired by the biology of a fly, with submillimeter-scale anatomy and two wafer-thin wings that flap almost invisibly, 120 times per second, the tiny device not only represents the absolute cutting edge of micromanufacturing and control systems; it is an aspiration that has impelled innovation in these fields by dozens of researchers across Harvard for years.
“We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything,” explains Wood. “We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target.”
Flight muscles, for instance, don’t come prepackaged for robots the size of a fingertip.
“Large robots can run on electromagnetic motors, but at this small scale you have to come up with an alternative, and there wasn’t one,” says co-lead author Kevin Y. Ma, a graduate student at SEAS.
The tiny automaton flaps its wings with electricity actuators — strips of ceramic that expand and contract once an electrical field is applied. skinny hinges of plastic embedded inside the carbon fiber body frame function joints, and a carefully balanced system commands the motion motions within the flapping-wing automaton, with every wing controlled severally in period of time.
Applications of the RoboBee project may embrace distributed environmental watching, search-and-rescue operations, or help with crop pollenation, however the materials, fabrication techniques, and parts that emerge on the means may convince be even a lot of important. for instance, the pop-up producing method may change a brand new category of advanced medical devices. Harvard’s workplace of Technology Development, together with Harvard SEAS and also the Wyss Institute, is already within the method of commercializing a number of the underlying technologies.
The prototypes area unit still bound by a really skinny line as a result of there aren’t any ready-to-wear solutions for energy storage that area unit sufficiently little to be mounted on the robot’s body. High energy-density fuel cells should be developed before the RoboBees are ready to fly with abundant independence.
“This project provides a typical motivation for scientists and engineers across the university to make smaller batteries, to style a lot of economical management systems, and to form stronger, a lot of light-weight materials,” says Wood. “You won’t expect all of those individuals to figure together: vision consultants, biologists, materials scientists, electrical engineers. What do they need in common? Well, all of them fancy determination extremely exhausting issues.”
“I wish to form one thing the globe has ne’er seen before,” adds Ma. “It’s regarding the thrill of pushing the boundaries of what we predict we are able to do, the boundaries of human ingenuity.”
This analysis was supported by the National Science Foundation and also the Wyss Institute for Biologically galvanized Engineering at Harvard.